BENGALURU: It was May 2017 and the sun was scorching over the dense Pench Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh. Bengaluru-based wildlife photographer Pranav Vajapeyam was on a photo tour in the tiger reserve.
Almost 45 minutes into the drive, Vajapeyam saw the 'majestic' Collarwali tigress walking in front of him. Five years later in 2022, Vajapeyam feels he is one of the lucky ones to have captured the famous tigress of India.
Following the death of Collarwali recently due to age-related issues, many wildlife enthusiasts across India have been paying tribute to the tigress. Unlike other tigers, Collarwali was a special one because the 16-year-old gave birth to 29 cubs in Pench, becoming one the major contributors to the tiger population in Madhya Pradesh. She was also popularly known as the Mother of Pench and T15.
Terming her 'majestic' and 'elegant', Vajapeyam sighted Collarwali multiple times. However, one of the striking moments was when the tigress went behind a bush and came out with a prey in the mouth.
Vajapeyam explains, "We sight edthe tigress only 45 minutes into the safari. We saw her behind a bush and then she came out with a young and tiny wild boar in her mouth. It was 45 degrees Celsius and she frequented the waterhole many times."
Unlike other animals, Vajapeyam observed that Collarwali was a 'vehicle-friendly' tigress who wasn’t bothered by jeeps. Besides commanding high respect among fans outside the forest, she also commanded great respect within.
Wildlife photographer Diinesh Kumble who has visited Pench multiple times, never missed the opportunity to capture Collarwali. "I've seen and photographed Collarwali everytime I visited Pench - about four to five times. I've seen her with two-three cubs and on one occasion with four cubs. It has been an endearing experience every time I have come across her. I admired her tenacity to successfully raise so many cubs in the territory. May her progeny continue to thrive," says Kumble.
Dr Akhilesh Mishra, a veterinary doctor posted at Pench Tiger Reserve, has been tracking Collarwali since her birth and even conducted the postmortem of her cubs that died earlier. An emotional Mishra says she was respected because of her motherly nature.
He recalls, "She had a peculiar habit. Whenever we used to ride on elephants to monitor the territory, she would accompany us like a partner. If she was wounded, she would sit in an open space to grab attention of the officials."
Sarosh Lodhi, a Nagpur-based wildlife photographer whose photo, featuring Collarwali and her cubs sipping water from the waterhole has gone viral on social media, believes that the territory was actually called the Collarwali's park because of the way she populated the region. He has been photographing her for more than 10 years.
"Her sightings were quite frequent because she would stroll around tourist spots quite often. Since she was radio collared for a long time, the collar actually made her distinctive from the rest. I have seen her nursing the cubs and hold many special memories of her in the territory. My bond with Collarwali is very strong," says Lodhi.